As a trainee accountant, many of you are facing responsibilities and challenges for the first time and it makes sense that you’re afraid to fail or make a mistake for fear of the consequences. That said, ask anyone who has been where you are, and they’re likely to tell you that it’s by failing and making mistakes that we learn and grow; there’s little to be learned when life is all plain sailing. Don’t be afraid to fail, it really is the best way to avoid the mistake the next time around. 

A veteran of the American comedy and late night television scene, Conan O Brien has won worldwide fame and is a household name in American comedy. He wrote and produced two years of The Simpsons as well as writing for Saturday Night Live. He also hosted Late Night Live following the retirement of David Letterman; today hosting his own show, Conan.

Despite O Brien’s considerable success, he’s had his share of failure, disappointment and humiliation. It was these stories that he shared with the graduating Harvard class of 2000. As a Harvard graduate himself, O Brien spoke to the audience about success. “Success is like a bright, white tuxedo. You feel terrific when you get it, but then you become desperately afraid of getting it dirty or spoiling it in any way.”

He shared how hard it was to break into comedy and how many knocks his career took before he finally got it right. There was his embarrassment over a bombed pilot of a TV series, and his feelings about being unemployed at the age of 28. One of his greatest learnings, he revealed, is that it doesn’t matter how famous you are, or what you do in your life, there is not a single person who can escape feelings of disappointment and self-doubt at times.

The trick, he advised graduates, is to simply keep going – this is what he did in his career and what he believed they should do too.

On speaking about his failures and challenges, O Brien reported that each one was “bruising and tumultuous at the time.” That said, looking back, he recalls each failure as being freeing in its own way, saying that he is as nostalgic for the bad as he is for the good.

Ultimately, O Brien explained to the Harvard graduates his wish for each of them: “the bad, as well as the good. Fall down, make a mess, break something occasionally. Remember, the story is never over,” he said. 

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